One of the first things we’re tempted to say to someone experiencing anxiety is “take a deep breath.” That’s because we innately know our breath and anxiety are connected. But how much do we really understand about how the two play off of each other? Consider this your guide to better understanding the link, complete with specific breathing techniques to help you manage your anxiety and stay focused.
Take a deep breath and let’s get started.
How Anxiety Affects Your Breath
“When you experience anxiety, your brain is experiencing a false alarm,” explains Dr. Debra Kissen, Ph.D., M.H.S.A., CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment center in Illinois. “If something really bad is happening, you experience fear or terror. Getting eaten by a lion is terror. Anxiety, though, is future terror. It’s a false alarm. Your brain has put your body in a sense of immediate danger, even though you’re actually just sitting at your desk.”
Basically, when your mind fixates on a perceived future threat, you experience feelings of anxiety and your body responds as if that threat were real, according to the American Psychological Association.
How this manifests physically: “Muscles become tense, breathing is faster, and the heart beats more rapidly,” says Kissen.
Quick breathing can often be one of the first physical cues of anxiety—and it often leads the way for blood pressure and heart rate to spike, according to Harvard Medical School. As a result, you feel lightheaded, numb, and sweaty.
“Your brain thinks it’s fighting for your survival,” says Dr. Kissen. “When you over-breathe, you’re taking in more oxygen—something you might need if you were, say, running from a lion.” Thing is, you’re not.
How Your Breath Impacts Anxiety
In the same way that anxious thoughts bring on anxious breathing (and vice versa), more restful, intentional breathing can alleviate some of that thinking and create a calmer mental state.
Though terms like “mindfulness” and “breathwork” may sound a little woo-woo, legitimate research backs them up.
For example, Diaphragmatic breathing is shown to lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone that can mess with your health in excess), and slow heart rate. Essentially, slow breathing interrupts the cycle of anxiety and anxious breathing by signaling to the body that you are relaxed, calm, and not in need of the fight-or-flight surge.
Some powerful research published by the New York Academy of Sciences even suggests that yoga breathing holds value in the treatment of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and more.
How To Balance Your Breath—And Mind
Here are a few ways to form a better relationship between your breath and anxiety.
1. Recognize Your External Triggers and Internal Cues
First, it’s important to distinguish what anxious thinking and breathing feel like for you. “Typically, most anxiety stems from anxious thinking, particularly when you dwell on ‘what if’ thoughts or catastrophic thoughts,” says Ken Goodman, L.C.S.W., member of the board of directors for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “The thoughts can be triggered by anything from a news story to a social media post. If you’re asking your anxious mind scary questions, you’ll get a scary answer.”
Understanding your external triggers is half the battle. The other is tuning into your mind and body.
When people are anxious, they often hold their breath, over-breathe, or breathe incorrectly. “People who are anxious tend to breathe from their chest, so when they inhale their chest expands,” says Goodman. “That puts a strain on the heart and lungs. When you think about someone having a panic attack, they are typically breathing fast, loud, with their chest, and through their mouth.”
Take a minute or two periodically throughout the day to pause and tune into your breath. Is it slow and controlled? Is it fast and shallow? Is your chest rising or is your belly expanding? Your goal: Gauge how you’re breathing and take action accordingly (more on that next).
2. Instead of trying to breathe deeper, breathe slower
“If breathing too fast, too hard, or too shallow is anxious breathing, the opposite is relaxation breathing,” says Goodman. “That would be slow, silent, through the nose, expanding the abdominal muscles.”
Getting there may not be what you think, though. “Your first instinct when feeling anxious is to breathe in more, which is really not what you want to do,” says Dr. Kissen. “Even telling someone to ‘take a deep breath’ can be unhelpful because it’s often still too intense.”
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Instead, think about how you breathe when totally relaxed—at the beach, getting a massage, on a day off of work. You’re not necessarily breathing deeply, but calmly.
“You want to take slow, gentle breaths,” says Kissen. “We’re trying to down-regulate, like we are calmly sipping wine. A slow but gentle breathing pattern sends a signal to the brain that we are not in danger.”
3. set aside time to practice breathing
By practicing regularly, you’ll have solidified some breathing techniques for minimizing the discomfort when you do feel anxious.
“I tell my patients they need to practice breathing five times a day when they are not anxious,” says Goodman. “If you don’t practice it, you won’t remember to do it or how to do it. You need to practice when you’re not stressed so that when you are, you don’t even have to think about it.”
To make it stick, create a practice that is easy for you to incorporate into your routine. “Pair breathing with things you do every day,” Goodman says. “If you check your email five times a day, do one minute of breathing every time you check it. It doesn’t have to be long—maybe six slow, intentional breaths. Or, set a timer to go off once an hour to remind you to give yourself a minute to breathe.”
4. Challenge your own anxious thoughts
When anxious thoughts crop up, let them—and then work with them. “Whatever anxiety tells you to do, do the opposite,” says Kissen. “If you want to leave, stay. If you don’t want to speak, speak. If you want to breathe harder and faster, breathe slower and longer.”
In other words, try not to fall into the trap. There’s an empowerment that comes with standing up to your fears, as well as a relief when the sky does not actually fall after doing so.
5. Breathe with a mantra
In anxious moments, pairing calm breathing with a quick phrase can help you focus and reset. Pick something you can split between the inhale and exhale, Goodman suggests.
For example, try “I can” on the inhale in and “relax” on the exhale—or “keep calm” on the inhale and “breathe on” on the exhale. Your mantra can be anything you want; the point is to get your brain focused on the breath.
“The kind of breath you take, and what you’re saying to yourself while taking that breath really matters,” says Goodman. “If you’re breathing calmly but thinking negatively, anxiety wins.”
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